Review: The Duchess of Malfi

The Duchess of Malfi is ‘a wonderful tense piece of period drama’. Reviews

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Venue: The Drama Barn

★★★★☆

I’m always surprised by what they can do with the space they have at the drama barn and I really loved this one. It was simple: curtains at the back in a regal fabric, a plain rug across the floor, an illusion of candle light created with fairy lights around the edge. Combined with the costumes, there was a real sense that we looking onto a late renaissance stage. The colours were deliberately restricted to an autumn palette and there were leaves scattered around the set, which gave the whole piece a sense of unity. This restraint worked well with the descriptive Elizabethan poetry of The Duchess of Malfi; we were never lost as to where we were supposed to be, even though most scenes the stage was bare of props, or just one stool was brought on.

The sense of unity in the set paralleled the greatest strength of the acting; the cast worked really well together as an ensemble. Jared More dominated the stage early on as Ferdinand, jealous and domineering brother of the eponymous Duchess (Hannah Forsyth). We can see the other characters coil away from him as he invades their personal space, making his charismatic character immediately apparent. His brother, the Cardinal (Thomas Barry), is a perfect foil for him; calm, slow-speaking, hands folded in front of him so the other cast members can’t get too close, Barry masterfully separates himself from his brother. The darkest parts of his character are in turn brought out by Julia (Amelia Hamilton); even against the backdrop of violence and bloodshed rife in the play, the misogynistic sexuality of the first conversation between these two was one of the piece’s most frightening scenes.

Another testament to the acting was the way that characters developed across the play: after quickly characterising themselves, the cast changed as the plot progressed. Angus Bower-Brown gave a strong performance as Bosola, agent of Ferdinand, throughout but really excelled in the scene after the Duchess’ death, where Ferdinand turns against him. Bower-Brown really conveys a sense of horror; we almost even feel sorry for him. Hannah Forsyth, playing the Duchess, did a fantastic job changing to fit the scenario at hand. The difference between the scenes that have her interact More – every muscle is tense, her shoulders are raised, we can almost feel her heart pounding in the second row – and the calmness with which she faces her ultimate execution create a wonderful saintly persona, a tragic heroine all too willing to make a martyr of herself.

There were some issues with the way they performed the text itself though. There were a couple of stumbles with a few words, moments where actors retraced their steps to repeat a line, though this was dealt with well and did not phase them. The problem was more that often meanings were lost, especially in moments of dialogue, as lines were rushed through far too quickly. A distance was created between the audience and the play when we did not have time to digest what was being said, especially in something so laden with imagery. The best moments were often when actors slowed down for monologues or the lines that they had chosen to emphasise.

This didn’t stop it from being a wonderful, tense piece of period drama though. A lot of work had clearly gone into this production and it really paid off. All the parts really worked together well as a whole; it felt like the product of a team who really knew how to play to each others’ strengths.

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